Handgun Self Defense Ammo , You Can Bet Your Life On

Tom gives us his pick of the best handgun self defense ammo currently on the market.

Will your self-defense ammo do what it's supposed to like this Sig Sauer V-Crown .45 ACP?
Will your self-defense ammo do what it's supposed to like this Sig Sauer V-Crown .45 ACP?
Tom McHale headshot low-res square
Tom McHale

USA –-(Ammoland.com)- While no one I know wants to be shot with one, handguns aren't exactly pocket howitzers. They make holes. Yes, messy ones, but holes nonetheless.

A shot from a handgun might stop a determined attacker, but likely won't. Just ask Sergeant Timothy Gramins of the Skokie Police Department. His attacker soaked up 14 rounds of .45 ACP before he quit fighting back.

However, a handgun is much easier to conceal than a Barrett M82, so it's likely going to be what you have at your disposal in the event of an emergency. If that’s what you’ve got, and it’s less than ideal to start with, then every possible advantage in the handgun self defense ammo department helps, right?

Handgun Self Defense Ammo

The thing is, you can’t just pick quality self-defense ammo based on the brand name in the box. Sure, everything reputable will work to some degree and offers reliability, but you may not be able to count on it doing all the things it’s supposed to do, like penetrating to the right depth and offering proper expansion after passing through tough clothing barriers. Every caliber offering from under the same label performs differently, and every ammo variety won’t perform the same in all guns. For example, the Flaming Mushroom Razor Nuke 9mm load may perform like a champ, while the .45 ACP variant of the same ammo doesn't quite do what you would expect. I’ve seen that a lot with some of the most popular self-defense loads out there.

After testing hundreds of loads in a variety of calibers over the years, here are some that stand out. I’ll group them together by the label, then call out the specific caliber offerings that have performed well.

Oh, and just because your pet self defense ammo isn’t listed below doesn’t mean it didn’t perform well in testing. We only have so much space, so we’re going to list a handful of loads that have floated to the top of the performance pile. In a future article, we'll get into other loads and calibers.

Barnes TAC-XPD Self Defense Ammo

Barnes is no stranger to the bullet making business, having produced quality hunting loads for 75% of forever. More recently, they’ve started to make projectiles for tactical and self-defense ammo use. On the handgun front, the TAC-XPD projectiles are one of the Kings of the Hill. Barnes has made the leap from bullet maker to ammo manufacturer and their self defense ammo line is top shelf. Use of special propellant keeps flash down and cases and bullets are coated to resist corrosion and improve feeding performance.

The all-copper projectile features a hollow-point design that’s big enough for a bowl of Cheerios, but don’t think for a minute that the big void will clog up when it encounters heavy clothing. One reason for using all copper is that the projectile is one piece, so you’ll never have the issue of the jacket and lead core separating when encountering tough targets. That means most (and usually all) bullet weight is retained as it travels through the target.

Barnes' TAC-XPD self defense ammo
It's hard to go wrong with Barnes' TAC-XPD ammo. Every caliber I've tried works perfectly like this .45 ACP 185-grain load.

I’m still working my way through all the caliber offerings, but have tested the following.

  • The Barnes .40 S&W Load uses a 140-grain bullet. Fired from a Beretta PX4 Storm, it reaches a velocity of 1,047.6 feet per second. Expansion when fired into Clear Ballistics gel through four-layer FBI heavy fabric was over 3/4 of an inch with average penetration at 12.5 inches.
  • The Barnes .45 ACP Load is also on the light end for caliber, using an 185-grain bullet. From my Springfield Armory TRP 1911 velocity measured over 1,005 fps while penetration ranged around 16 inches and expanded bullets measured .788 inches.
  • The Barnes 9mm +P Load performed equally well with velocity from a Sig P229 Legion of 1,027.8 fps, penetration averaging 13.5 inches and expansion consistently over .7 inches.

Sig Sauer Elite Performance V-Crown

I’ve toured the Sig Sauer ammunition factory and seen first hand exactly how finicky they are about their ammo. When you test it, you’ll find that velocities are shockingly consistent which is a testament to care during the manufacturing process.

I’ve also tested a range of caliber offerings from the Elite Performance V-Crown hollow-point series. The Sig-designed V-Crown uses a two-stage, for lack of a better description, cavity design that provides the right balance of expansion and penetration.

.380 ACP bullets are notoriously unreliable when it comes to expansion, especially when fired from pocket guns like the Ruger LCP. This Sig Sauer V-Crown load tested well.
.380 ACP bullets are notoriously unreliable when it comes to expansion, especially when fired from pocket guns like the Ruger LCP. This Sig Sauer V-Crown load tested well.

I’ve gotten stellar results from the .45 ACP 230-grain, .357 Sig 125-grain, 9mm 124-grain, and 9mm 147-grain loads. As a side note, if you want more penetration depth in a 9mm handgun self defense ammo, try the 147-grain offering – it tested to an average of 23 inches with expansion in the .5 inch range.

Here, I’ll call out the Sig Sauer Elite Performance V-Crown .380 ACP Load. Usually, .380 ACP hollow-point performance is finicky. It’s a (relatively) slow round, so there’s less energy to work with to drive both penetration and expansion. Tested from the tiny Ruger LCP, penetration averaged 14 inches while expansion exceeded 1/2-inch, and that was driven by average velocity of 881.5 feet per second.

Doubletap 80-grain Barnes TAC-XP Lead-Free

I’ve got a thing for .357 Sig. Its classic 125-grain loading comes really darn close to matching the ballistics of a 125-grain .357 Magnum cartridge, and you can shoot it from semi-automatic pistols. The case dimensions are similar (not identical) to the .40 S&W, so it generally fits right into guns built for that common caliber with only a barrel change and sometimes a recoil spring swap.

The bottleneck cartridge shape helps it to be one of the most reliable semi-automatic rounds in handgun self defense ammo out there as feeding problems are rare.

For some weird reason, I really like .357 Sig pistols. This 80-grain Doubletap Ammunition load is pretty unconventional, but works great and has low recoil.
For some weird reason, I really like .357 Sig pistols. This 80-grain Doubletap Ammunition load is pretty unconventional, but works great and has low recoil.

The thing is, .357 Sig has some blast and recoil. Since it fires a 9mm-like bullet, but a couple hundred feet per second faster, recoil is snappier. The Godfather of Boom, Mike McNett of Doubletap Ammunition got creative and worked out a way to offer a nifty .357 Sig load that has limited penetration and a lot less recoil. Using the 80-grain Barnes TAC-XPD Bullet, this round screams. I measure velocity at 1,782 feet per second from a Sig Sauer P320 full-size and 1,768.5 feet per second from a Sig P226. Accuracy is also outstanding with average five-shot groups from 25 yards well under two inches. My average from the Sig Sauer P320 was 1.81 inches.

I fired these into Clear Ballistics Gelatin Blocks through the standard FBI heavy fabric test material and every single round expanded past maximum diameter. The range of expansion was .54 inches to .78 inches and penetration varied accordingly from 12.25 to 16.75 inches with most projectiles going just under 13 inches.

Doubletap 77-grain 9mm Handgun Self Defense Ammo

Compact guns make consistent penetration and expansion really hard. Shorter barrels generate less velocity, so getting both end results is rare. Doubletap Ammunition developed this lightweight projectile load specifically for small carry 9mm pistols. The higher velocity aids expansion which is aggressive even from short barrel pistols in order to limit penetration for CCW or home-defense scenarios.

If you carry a compact 9mm and want reliable expansion with controlled penetration, check out this creative 77-grain offering from Doubletap.
If you carry a compact 9mm and want reliable expansion with controlled penetration, check out this creative 77-grain offering from Doubletap.

With a light-for-caliber 77-grain bullet, this load develops 1,358.5 feet per second from a Springfield Armory EMP. Penetration averaged 10.5 inches and expansion averaged .65 inches.

Federal Premium HST Ammo

Another offering that’s proven solid across the board in my testing so far is Federal Premium’s HST. While it may seem like HST stands for Hydra-Shok Two, the Federal folks claim it’s just a cool marketing name with no significance to the letters. I’ll call out the .45 ACP 230-grain load here because those heavies are often hit and miss when it comes to expansion. As most travel below 900 feet per second, there’s not excess velocity to help overcome fabric barriers which may dampen the expansion effect. This load is one of the exceptions to the rule. Clocking in at 905 feet per second from my Springfield Armory TRP 1911, the penetration depth through heavy fabric and into Clear Ballistics gelatin averaged over 16 inches. Expansion averaged nearly double the starting diameter, coming in at .892 for multiple test shots.

It's hard to go wrong with most any Federal HST handgun self defense ammo caliber like these 230-grain .45 ACP's. Accuracy is pretty impressive too.
It's hard to go wrong with most any Federal HST handgun self defense ammo caliber like these 230-grain .45 ACP's. Accuracy is pretty impressive too.

There are lots of other choices in handgun self defense ammo out there that will do the job, just be careful to make sure that the specific caliber choice you pick works as you expect with your specific gun. The brand name on the box is always a good indicator, but all loads in all calibers may not perform to equal standards.


Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon. You can also find him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • 22 thoughts on “Handgun Self Defense Ammo , You Can Bet Your Life On

      1. YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD. The T- series is one hell of a penatrator and expanding once its past heavy clothing ect. an awsome round I use 9mm & 45 in winter when heavy clothing is worn mainly, the PDX1 defender +p 124 9mm bonded is another real good defense round all I find in 45 is standard load 230 grain works well, but the T-series 45 230 +p is one hell of a defense round bonded . I’ve shot not just jell but hard materials to check, they stay bonded. When you can find them, I have 50 each at least on hand but when you use after testing you don’t need many if you just don’t shoot target with them once you see your weapon cycles them fine , I just use others same load and grain to train. Glad you brought up the T-SERIES THEY ARE ONE HELL OF A DEFENSE ROUND. Thanks for making that round an issue to the rest George.

      2. I’ve never found Win Ranger ammo locally, and haven’t noticed it online much. I did a quick search and found the T-series looks like the Ranger JHP, which, frankly, looks just like the Win PDX1 I carry (PDX1 & Hornady.)

        In ammo reviews – much like this one – I don’t think I’ve ever seen Win Ranger, but I have seen PDX1 from Win. Is it basically the same ammo just branded differently?

        As for the ammo mentioned in this article, I’ve never seen anything regarding Barnes nor Doubletap products. These look interesting, and I might have to look into them.

        Colt has a product out called the Colt SCHP that looks good. It expands into a petal shape (like the Barnes) as opposed to the mushroom bloom we see in other rounds. Anyone have an opinion on that brand?

    1. In spite of what our “rulers’ like to tell us, a handgun is NOT the best Personal Defense Weapon. Almost everyone but the most highest trained, will shoot 7 or 8 times more accurately with a short barreled rifle or carbine in a pistol caliber at much further distances. We should all be walking around with SBRs with collapsible/folding stocks, Flash Suppressors, Noise Suppressors, etc. on them in this age of Islamic Terrorism and other nutcases.

      1. @Diamondback, I am not sure what you mean about our rulers telling us about handguns, but getting by that: what you say is true, but handguns are more convenient to carry than long barreled firearms. It is a trade off… a little less accuracy at distance for a little more convenience. That is what is nice about the world of firearms, we are free to form theories, test our theories, share the results, sell everything if it does not work out and start all over.

      2. In case you missed it, the author already pointed out the deficiency of the handgun as a defensive weapon. I also don’t know which rulers you’re talking about that are telling us that the best defensive weapon is a handgun; any bubblehead would know that a long-gun is a superior weapon for either defense or offense, though I’m intelligent enough to know that a pistol is easier to conceal than an AK, thus making it the appropriate defensive weapon to have when shopping for green beans at Safeway.

        I disagree with your comment about all of us needing to walk around armed with combat gats to defend against terrorists and nut jobs. Instead of insulting you by inferring that you might be a nut job for an extremist view, I’ll hope, instead, that when you engage in dialogue regarding gun rights, you take a more rational tone. I mean no disrespect, but some of my acquantences have extreme views one way or the other, and gun zealots who spew that citizens should be armed for total instant warfare are as damaging to gun rights as any ignorant anti-gunner can ever be. Instead of defending our gun rights by offering informed arguments you make comments that simply reinforce the fears of the anti-gunner. If I point out that it’s not the gun that kills but the person behind it, the risk is that they point at peeps like you that have extreme views and their fears are justified.

        People who want to take the guns don’t manage it on statistics. They do it on fear. We all should know this and act accordingly. Instead, we stomp around mindless of our behavior and declare that we can do as we please because of the 2nd, and then we crap ourselves when our guns get legislated into extinction. The 2nd may say you can be armed, but the State can legislate away an AK. You csn still have a gun, just not THAT gun. A bill on the governor’s desk can take away 30-round magazines and leave you with only ten-round magazines. The State can get to a point that no new handguns can be introduced unless they meet a specific criteria – no new guns in CA unless they utilize micro-stamping technology (which doesn’t exist) – and there’s nothing you can do about it. CA just legislated that one cannot buy an AR-15 with a removable magazine, and, again, there’s nothing to be done about it. Those same peeps who crowed and beat their chests and claimed the 2nd will protect them will meekly put those rifles in a safe or alter them so their “evil” componants are gone.

        Terrorists and nutjobs have done enough to make people fear semi-auto rifles, but peeps like you who spout this arm everyone crap only succeed in rienforcing the fears of the voter or the mom whose kid walks to school or the family sitting in a theater. I’ve argued for rational discussion until I’ve become blue in the face and I distance myself from guys like you because you do more harm than good. Every time a loon blasts a schoolyard there’s ample evidence that person was recognized as off-balance and nothing was done, so if we can’t find our balls and do something about calling out the potential shooter then it’s obvious the state will go after the guns. We’ll only have ourselves to blame when that happens.

        Not hating on you, and I mean no disrespect, but you simply are not helping.

    2. Spend less time worrying about this and more about being able to hit the target. Carry the best quality you can afford and test it thoroughly YOURSELF but none of it helps if you miss the mark.



      1. The shooter is fairly safe from the courts, I believe, when carrying any brand of ammo marketed for civilian use, and I’ve never seen negative court rulings regarding hand-loaded ammo. The closest I can think of is the concept of making Dumb-dumbs with soft lead bullets back in the 70’s.

        However, I can’t find anything of value regarding the courts and exotic ammo like the RIP rounds. I do know that municipalities don’t allow them for their departments (though I don’t know if that’s because of the exotic nature of the bullet or a confidance issue) so that design might – though I really doubt it – fall into your argument. The shooter, in my simple opinion, would only be in jeapordy if they drastically altered their ammo beyond “reasonable lethality” such as filling them with liquid mercury or cyanide.

        I know you were joking about .45 being able to stop an elephant, but you draw attention to a good point; appropriate escalation of force is a reasonable expectation from your police officers, but when the decision to shoot a BG is made, there’s a fine line that needs to be walked when you balance the “adequateness” of your ammo to the level of lethality. Even though the justification of shooting equals the justification of killing, the public would never accept ammo that guarantees 100% kills (i.e., explosive ammo.) Yet there ARE those individuals that require many rounds to get them to stop what they’re doing (which communities don’t accept when they publicly outcry when cops shoot a suspect eight, 10, 12 times.)

        Anyway, the best way any of us can prepare is to get to the range often enough to be confident in your weapons and your skills.

        1. Ok, on the comment on All Caps won’t do any more of that. Bob G. what you posted is very close to my thinking on selection of Ammo for self defense. I did read a long time ago about a court case that did involve hand reloads that the person loaded as HOT loads for self defense, don’t remember what the verdict was but I remember it was brought up in the case. My brother is an NRA Instructor and told me a long time ago to use ONLY FACTORY LOADS for defense. That is a good policy no matter what else you maybe shooting, target loads can be anything but hunting loads in some states are required to be a certain bullet weight or caliber for different game. However, I always go with the saying, “Be sure you bring enough gun to the situation, no matter what.” With that I will leave the comment section to others.

          1. Your brother’s not wrong, but reloaders who do go hotter on their rounds still end up with their loads to be near the hotter ammo manufactured for commercial or LE use. Of course, there’s always some bozo who just has to pack a dangerous load into his cartridges, but, generally, reloaders tend to either go hotter or milder than average commercially available ammo. I’m acquanted (not well) with a guy who reloads ammo for his single-action revolvers mainly to save on costs (he scrounges lead) but also to drop down the pressures of the ammo. Now, I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who does not reload, and what I’m saying is based on what I’ve read or been told. Maybe actual reloaders can chime in with their two-cents.

    5. Something not mentioned is that many defensive handgun loads were developed for and tested with so-called “duty” weapons with 4″ or longer barrels. As a result, both expansion and penetration may not be as reliable when used in the shorter-barreled handguns commonly carried concealed.

      Some manufacturers (such as Hornady and Speer) have specific loads tailored for short-barreled handguns to address this.

    6. AmmoQuest has some great ballistics gel tests for 9mm, .380, and I think I’ve seen a few for .45 ACP. The blogger uses FBI gel, fires 5 rounds/load, and does 4 layer denim and bare gel tests. The results may surprise you, esp. the tests with gold dot sabers, HSTs, and gold dots. I’m leary of low grain pistol rounds due to typically weak penetration.

      1. ShootingTheBull is a peddler of disproven nonsense that 15 inches of penetration is ideal, and won’t result in over-penetration… if that is indeed who you are talking about.

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